Editor Roundtable: Brokeback Mountain

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It’s love and longing this week as we camp out on Brokeback Mountain, the iconic 2005 love story written by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana. They won an Oscar for their adaptation of Annie Proulx’s award-winning short story. The movie was directed by Ang Lee, who became the first Asian director to win the Best Director Oscar.

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The Story

Here’s a synopsis of the documentary adapted from Wikipedia.

In 1963, Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist are hired to herd sheep through the summer up on Brokeback Mountain in Wyoming. One cold night after a bout of heavy drinking, Jack makes a pass at Ennis, who is initially hesitant but eventually responds to Jack’s advances. Alone on the mountain, they develop a passionate sexual and emotional relationship.

At the end of the summer they part ways. Ennis marries his fiancée Alma and starts a family. Jack moves to Texas, marries a rodeo rider named Lureen, and has a son with her.

Four years later Jack visits Ennis, and Alma witnesses a passionate kiss between them. Jack says he wants to create a life with Ennis on a ranch, but Ennis is unwilling to abandon his family. What’s more, he remembers two men from his childhood who “ranched up” together only to be tortured and murdered by the locals.

They continue to meet a few times a year for “fishing trips” up on Brokeback Mountain. Both men’s marriages deteriorate, and when Jack hears of Ennis’s divorce, he drives to Wyoming unannounced, hoping that now they can live together. Ennis can’t take that risk, and blames Jack for being the cause of his own inner conflict. They fight, but it turns into an embrace.

In 1980, a postcard Ennis has sent to Jack comes back marked “Deceased.” He calls Lureen, who tells him that Jack died in an accident involving a tire iron, but Ennis imagines that he met the same fate as the two ranchers from his childhood. Lureen tells him that Jack wanted to have his ashes scattered on Brokeback Mountain.

Ennis travels to Jack’s parents and offers to take his ashes back with him. The father refuses, but the mother lets him into Jack’s childhood bedroom, where he finds his old shirt from their first summer on the mountain, hung up inside one of Jack’s. Ennis holds both shirts up to his face, silently weeping.

Three years later, Ennis’s daughter, now 19, arrives at Ennis’ lonely, broken-down trailer home to tell him she’s become engaged. Will he come to her wedding? He wants to know if her fiancé really loves her and she replies “yes.” After she leaves, Ennis goes to his closet, where his old shirt hangs, wrapped around Jack’s, under a postcard of Brokeback Mountain. He stares at the ensemble for a moment, tears in his eyes, and murmurs, “Jack, I swear…”

The Editor’s Six Core Questions

Read about the Editor’s Six Core Questions here.

1. What’s the Global Genre? Love Story – Courtship

Leslie

We don’t have a “happily ever after,” which seems to be a requirement of the Courtship Love Story that ends positively. There is clearly more to the relationship between Ennis and Jack than Desire, which would indicate an Obsession story. I think the proof of love fails or comes too late, so I would identify this as a Courtship Love Story that ends negatively. Part of the key for me is in how we feel at the end of the story.

Additional Comments

Anne: I’m struck by similarities between this movie and last season’s Love Story, The Bridges of Madison County. In both cases, a strong and genuine love is prevented from ending in togetherness by social taboos or external circumstances. I wonder if this could be considered a separate subgenre of Love Story. It has a long history—whether a love between people from rival factions like Romeo and Juliet, different religions, different races, the same sex … maybe love-taboos have simply gradually broken down, and soon we’ll have no more need of this subgenre of love story. But true love that’s blocked by society–forbidden love, if you will–really strikes me as a separate kind of story, with a separate Core Emotion, than a straight-up Courtship Love story.

Kim: I agree with Anne, I think this is more than a courtship story. I even suggested we treat it like a marriage plot because they seem to reach a higher level of intimacy than we see in courtship stories. Their commitment to each other not conventional, due to the societal dangers, but it is lifelong.

Leslie: I don’t external circumstances are an exception to the requirement of a commitment. It seems as if love conquers all, or it doesn’t. The connection these men shared was really beautiful, but it was not enough for them to choose to commit to one another. Annie Proulx suggests this was her intent:

And one of the reasons we keep the gates locked here is that a lot of men have decided that the story should have had a happy ending. They can’t bear the way it ends—they just can’t stand it. So they rewrite the story, including all kinds of boyfriends and new lovers and so forth after Jack is killed. And it just drives me wild. They can’t understand that the story isn’t about Jack and Ennis. It’s about homophobia; it’s about a social situation; it’s about a place and a particular mindset and morality. 

Click here to learn more about the External Content Genres.

Click here to learn more about the Internal Content Genres.

2. What are the Conventions and Obligatory Scenes?

Click here to learn more about Conventions and Obligatory Scenes.

Conventions for the Love Story

Valerie

Triangle: A third wheel or rival – Although both Ennis and Jack get married and raise families, I don’t see their wives as rivals. Instead, it’s the husband of Laureen’s friend (Randall Malone) who forms the triangle in this love story. Ennis doesn’t find out about him until after Jack’s death.

Helpers and Harmers: people for and against the relationship – Society is definitely against the relationship, as is Jack’s father. In terms of helpers, there isn’t anyone actively helping to get Jack and Ennis together. However, their wives (Laureen and Alma) and Mrs. Twist all turn a blind eye to what’s going on. (Although Laureen’s knowledge is not overtly communicated to the audience, it’s clear from her reaction to Ennis’s phone call, that she understands he is her late husband’s lover.) None of the women do anything to stop the men from meeting, so in that way they are passive helpers. Even the foreman (Joe Aguirre, played by Randy Quaid) doesn’t stop their relationship. He wants no part of it and so refuses to hire Jack the following summer, but although he knows the truth of their relationship, he doesn’t call them on it or try to stop them. He, like the women, observes and remains silent.

External Need: Something outside the relationship driving the main characters’ actions – As Kim pointed out during the podcast, Ennis and Jack meet through work. It’s their external need to earn a living that has brought them together. And while I agree with that completely, I don’t see it as an external force driving the main characters’ actions. In Pride & Prejudice, there was a need for one of the Bennet girls to marry. However, I don’t see the same kind of external pressure hanging over Brokeback Mountain. In fact, the only thing keeping the men together is their love for one another. If you disagree with this, or see something that I’ve missed, please let me know. Comment below or contact me via twitter @StoryGridRT.

Moral Weight: a moral failing one or more characters must overcome for a happy ending – Neither of the men are able to overcome their moral failings, and as a result, the story doesn’t have a happy ending. In a beautiful scene 1 hour, 40 minutes into the film their moral failings/fatal flaws are spelled out.

Jack is unable to understand why Ennis can’t let go of his fear. Yes, he knows how society looks upon gay men – Jack is not naive. However, from his perspective, they can still be together if they physically remove themselves from society and set up house on a ranch. He knows that even this has risks, but he’s willing to take them so that he can have a life with the man he loves. Ennis isn’t able to take that risk. Jack can’t understand why Ennis is so fixated on what other people might think. Jack has been meeting him halfway for twenty years, but in this lovers-break-up scene, he can’t take it any longer. “You know friend, this is a goddamn bitch of an unsatisfactory situation.”

For his part, Ennis can’t understand why Jack is so optimistic given the reality of the society they live in (twice in the film he refers to what society does to men like them), or why he wants something more than what they’ve had for the past twenty years. He can’t understand that Jack needs more than “a couple of high altitude f*cks once or twice a year” and becomes furious when he learns that Jack has been to Mexico to visit sex workers there. “What I don’t know, all them things that I don’t know, might get you killed if I come to know them.”

For all this, they can’t quit one another.

Opposing Forces: Internal (bad habits, beliefs) or external (social rules, family values) – Obviously, the external opposing force is society’s attitude/belief toward gay relationships. For Ennis, he also struggles internally with his feelings for Jack. Whereas Jack is quite comfortable with who he is, Ennis is tormented. He is being pulled apart inside and his fear of dealing with who he is has paralyzed him. It’s because of his love for Jack that has made him “nothing” and go “nowhere”.

Rituals: Lovers have shared traditions, inside jokes, private language  – The obvious ritual is that Jack and Ennis go to Brokeback Mountain to be together. However, they also have a ritual of avoiding the issue (until the lovers-break-up scene) and of communicating through subtext by sending postcards.

Gender Divide: Lovers represent a separation between “male” and “female” sensibilities even in gay and lesbian love stories – Jack is the male: he’s the Mars/active/energetic force in the relationship. He’s the one who initiated it and he’s the one who reconnected with Ennis four years after their tryst. He’s also the one responsible for keeping the relationship going for twenty years (he drives to Wyoming, Ennis never goes to Texas).

While Jack is expressive, Ennis draws within. He is the female (Venus/passive/softer energy), sensitive character who reacts to Jack’s plans and ideas. He is a tortured soul who does not admit his true feelings for Jack until it’s too late.

Secrets

1) Society keeps from the couple – Society, in the form of Lureen, Alma, Mrs. Twist and Joe Aguirre, knows that there are men in gay relationships. The people in Jack’s and Ennis’s lives know they are gay, but don’t ever confess that to them.

2) The couple keeps from society – Jack and Ennis hide (or think they hide) the fact that they are a gay couple.

3) The couple keeps from one another – Jack hides the fact that he goes to Mexico (until the lovers-break-up scene), and he also hides his relationship with Randall Malone.

4) A character keeps from themselves (flaw that prevents intimacy)  – Ennis hides the fact that he’s deeply in love with Jack. He doesn’t realize that, or begin to deal with it, until after Jack has died.

Additional Comments

Anne: I have serious issues with the “gender divide” convention. While it may be that in any two-person love relationship one member is more passive or receptive in response to the other person’s active or giving energy, but those roles shift all the time and have nothing to do with the gender of anyone involved.

Yes, there are traditional social roles assigned to male and female people, and therefore to traditional male-female couples, but trying to force that convention to fit romantic relationships between other combinations of people, or all people in modern times, is ill-advised. Valerie finds that Jack is the more active, initiating force in the relationship, but it’s more or less explicit on the screen that in intimate matters the case is reversed. The Plus/Minus, Positive/Negative dichotomy needs to be discarded, or at the very least not associated with terms like male and female.

Obligatory Scenes for the Action Genre

Jarie

Lovers Meet – Jack pulls up in his pickup truck outside the office (3:50).

First kiss or intimate connection – Jack reaches for Ennis’ hand and puts it around him in the tent. Then, Jack starts to come on to Ennis. Ennis resists then gives in. They then have sex.(28:08)

Confession of love – Ennis: “Sending up a prayer that you forgot that harmonica” (1:10:45). Jack: “What about if you and me had a little ranch somewhere?” (1:11:05); “Sometimes I miss you so much that I can hardly stand it” (1:42:50). “I can’t make it on a couple of high altitude fucks a year” — (1:48:20). “I wish I knew how to quit you” (1:55:00).

Lovers break up –  This first time they break up is when Ennis does not commit to coming back the next summer (42:50).  Later, Ennis says he can’t see Jack till November, and they fight (1:45:40).

Proof of love –  Ennis’s proof of love is in his speech about their forbidden love (1:11:55). Jack goes up to Wyoming three or four times a year (1:16:43).

Lovers reunite – Ennis receives a postcard from Jack after all those years (1:02:20). Jack shows up at Ennis’ house at 1:04:02. It’s been 4 years.

Additional comments

Jarie: The campfire banter about their background is a good way to build tension. At 23:08, you get the first inkling that Ennis is opening up to Jack when Jack says, “This is the most you have talked since we got here.” To which Ennis replies, “This is the most I have talked all year.”

“The bottom line is we’re around each other and this thing grabs ahold of us again in the wrong place, in the wrong time and we’re dead” (1:11:38). This is the Midpoint Shift and the whole reason that their love is forbidden.

Leslie: Proof of love is meant to be a sacrifice one lover makes with no hope that it will do them any good. I don’t see that hiding shirts in the back of his closet is a sacrifice. It’s a deeply touching gesture, and it’s what I think makes the internal genre what Norman Friedman calls an Affective plot, but he doesn’t make a sacrifice for the happiness of his lover. He offers to leave his wife and start a ranching outfit with Ennis, but an offer to sacrifice only if the other lover agrees doesn’t seem like a sacrifice. Ennis makes a sacrifice by going to Jack’s parents’ home, but it comes after Jack has died, so it’s not for Jack’s happiness.

3. What is the Point of View? What is the Narrative Device?

POV: Third person cinematic. The setting on Brokeback Mountain provides a stark contrast to the ordinary lives Ennis and Jack live.  

Narrative Device: The story is told chronologically with the exception of a few small moments, one of which is the flashback that explains why Ennis is so afraid of exposing his relationship with Jack.

Additional comments

Anne:  There’s one very brief “fantasy” scene where Ennis imagines how Jack really died. Bold choice, necessary to the narrative, but Ang Lee was smart to make it extremely short. It lasts about six seconds.

Several scenes, most notably the phone conversation between Ennis and Lureen near the end, use tight closeups to convey something like what free indirect style would be in writing, where we feel we’re reading the character’s thoughts.

Kim: Jack has a flashback at the end of the middle build (after the big fight / the last time they see each other) to when they were first on Brokeback. Ennis is teasing him about sleeping standing up and hums to him (he never sings to anyone else) and then gets on his horse to head up the mountain. We come back to the present and Ennis driving away in his truck.

Check out these posts to learn more about Point of View and Narrative Devices.

4. What are the Objects of Desire, in other words, wants and needs?

Leslie

Want: authentic, committed love and connection

Needs: overcome fear and face danger to commit to one another publically

Click here to learn more about Objects of Desire.

5. What is the Controlling Idea / Theme?

Leslie

If we consider this a Courtship Love Story that ends negatively, we would say that Love fails when the lovers don’t evolve beyond desire. But for this story, it feels more accurate to say,

Love fails when the lovers face life-threatening violence and aren’t able to commit to one another publicly.

Additional Comments

Kim: Even though they don’t end up together, and Jack dies, the ending feels more positive than negative from a certain perspective, like Ennis knows how much Jack loved him and he holds onto that every day. Ennis is finding his way with renewing relationships and letting himself open up to his daughter, something he has struggled with. So it feels like Ennis still finds meaning through his love/life with Jack, even though it’s not in the way we all wish it could have been. Again, as Anne said before, this mirrors much of what we experienced with Bridges of Madison County. The couple doesn’t “end up together” but their lives are better for having loved each other.

Click here to learn more about Controlling Ideas and Themes.

6. What is the Beginning Hook, Middle Build, and Ending Payoff?

Kim

BEGINNING HOOK – Ennis and Jack spend the summer herding sheep on Brokeback Mountain and fall passionately in love.  

Inciting incident: Both arrive looking for work.

Progressive Complication: Hardships of life on the mountain, getting to know each other, Ennis opening up.

Turning point: Ennis drinks too much to go up the mountain to the pup tent, Jack makes a move and they have sex. (active turning point)

Crisis Question: Was that just a drunken episode or is this for real? Ennis says it’s a one-shot thing we got going here, but clearly he is feeling more. Irreconcilable Goods Choie:  Ennis could follow his feelings and continue with Jack or stay safe (emotionally, socially).

Climax: Ennis goes into the tent sober and doesn’t hold back.

Resolution: Aguirre (their boss) sees them with binoculars while they are goofing off and wrestling without shirts, which leads to a kiss.

Inciting incident: Aguirre makes them come down from Brokeback one month early.

Progressive Complication: Ennis is devastated when they part ways, both get married and have families, Ennis receives a postcard from Jack, and they comes for a visit.

Midpoint Shift: On their first fishing trip, Jack suggests that it could always be like this, if they had their own ranch. Ennis tells the story from his youth of Earl & Rich, the two men who were killed for living together. “If you can’t fix it, you gotta stand it.” This feels like the moment when they cross over–understanding the stakes, understanding the limitations they’ll have to endure, they choose to continue.

Turning point: Ennis and Alma get divorced (active turning point).

Crisis Question: Will Ennis and Jack make a more permanent arrangement? This is an amped-up version of the crisis question in the BH. This time their relationship has spanned years, they want it more, but the reality of danger is also in play. This time it feels like a BBC: Keep things the way they are and live unsatisfied or put themselves in danger by living together.

Climax:  Ennis tells Jack he’s not going to be able to see him again until November because of his job, “I can’t quit this one”  Jack is angry, and they argue. “I wish I knew how to quit you”, and “It’s your fault I’m like this. I’m nothing. I’m nowhere.” Sobs, “I can’t take this anymore, Jack.”

Resolution: Part ways, Ennis is alone in the diner when Cassie comes in.

ENDING PAYOFF – Ennis learns of Jack’s death and must decide how to go on without him, and what their time together really meant.

Inciting incident: Ennis gets a return postcard marked “deceased”.

Progressive Complications: Ennis calls Jack’s wife and finds out how he died–that he was changing a tire that blew up in his face. Ennis believes a much more sinister attack was the real reason. He hears about Jack’s wishes for his ashes to be spread on Brokeback Mountain and goes to see Jack’s parents.

Turning Point: Finds out from Jack’s dad about “some other rancher” that Jack was going to bring and build a cabin with (revelatory turning point).

Crisis Question: How should he feel about Jack now? Was their love as true as he always believed or was it different for Jack than it was for Ennis? Does their life together have any meaning now? (I’m not really sure how to word this as a BBC vs IG, but it seems like there’s a difference in believing want you want and believing the truth, whether what you want is to feel betrayed/victim/hardhearted or if you want to pretend everything is better than it is.)

Climax: Goes to his room and finds the shirts that Jack had kept from their first summer together on Brokeback Mountain. He cries into them and keeps them.

Resolution: Ennis reconnects with his daughter, Alma Jr. and agrees to go to her wedding. Keeps the shirts and his postcard from Jack hung up in his armoire so he can look at them every day.

Additional Comments

Jarie: The power of the postcards as a way they communicate is such a great way to do it. The Deceased stamped on it was so powerful and when Ennis calls and talked to Jack’s wife, the flashbacks are sad and powerful.

Kim: There was not a clear break between the MB and EP, and it appears to be from a missing epiphany/truth will out moment to pull us out of the Dark Night of the Soul. This could have been in the form of a proof of love postcard from either Jack or Ennis that says something about staying together. Instead we jump right to when Ennis receives back his own postcard marked as “deceased.”

Click here to learn more about the Beginning Hook, Middle Build, and Ending Payoff.

7. Additional Story-Related Observations

Jarie: This is a great innovation in a Love story to have 2 tough cowboys show tenderness towards each other. It’s really a lovely, touching story that way. It’s also true to the tough but caring side of men. At 34:35, you see that Ennis just wants to be loved and he has not found anyone that cares about him.

Valerie: This film is like study in subtext. It’s fantastic. No one, not even Jack and Ennis, articulates the depth of their love for one another, yet by the end of the film, everyone understands it.

Anne: Despite being based on an award-winning short story, this is such a filmmaker’s movie! I highly recommend reading the story, which you can find in The New Yorker.

Much of the dialogue is preserved, but the translation of the Ennis’s third-person internal narrative into cinema involved a series of powerful choices on the part of the director, the actors, the cinematographer and the composer.  It’s an excellent case-study in the differences between written and cinematic storytelling.

Your Roundtable Story Grid Editors are Jarie Bolander, Valerie Francis, Anne Hawley, Kim Kessler, and Leslie Watts.

Join us again next time, when we once wander alone into the woods of the Horror genre with the 2013 remake of Carrie. Why not give it a look during the week, and follow along with us?

About the Author

Leslie Watts is a certified Story Grid editor, writer, and podcaster. She’s been writing for as long as she can remember: from her sixth-grade magazine about cats to writing practice while drafting opinions for an appellate court judge. When the dust settled after her children were born, she launched www.Writership.com to help writers unearth the treasure in their manuscripts. She believes writers become better storytellers through practice, and that editors owe a duty of care to help writers with specific and supportive guidance to meet reader expectations and express their unique gifts in the world.
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